Television in the United States is a profit-maximizing set of entities, an industry whose success is largely measured by its ability to deliver viewers to advertisers. The lure of television is its programs; commercial broadcasters seek shows of optimal value (be it in terms of ratings generated or demographics attracted) in order to maximize advertising revenue. The sponsor--the organization, corporation, institution or other entity willing to pay the broadcaster that revenue in exchange for the opportunity to advertise on television--stands at the center of program strategies. This relationship requires recognition of the complex interrelationship between television networks and advertisers, two industries whose differing responsibilities and sometimes conflicting needs produce the programming that draws the audience to the advertisement. In U.S. television the economic and industrial systems supporting these arrangements have their beginnings in radio broadcasting.

The emergence of radio in the early 1930s as an astonishingly effective means of delivering consumers to producers attracted an array of enthusiastic advertisers, and soon the radio schedule was dominated by shows named for their sponsors--the Chase and Sanborn Hour, the Cliquot Club Eskimos, and the Maxwell House Concert, for example. Produced for their clients by such advertising agencies as J. Walter Thompson and Young and Rubicam, the single-sponsored program was a staple of commercial broadcasting; it was an article of faith that if a listener identified a show with its sponsor, then that consumer was more likely to purchase the advertised product.

Although agency involvement in television was little more than tentative prior to 1948, advertisers soon embraced the new medium with great fervor; Pabst Blue Ribbon Bouts, Camel Newsreel, and the Chesterfield Supper Club were testimony to the steadfast belief in sponsor identification. However, as program costs soared in the early 1950s, it became increasingly difficult for agencies to assume the financial burdens of production, and even the concept of single sponsorship was subject to economic pressure.

By the 1952-53 season television's spiraling costs (an average 500% rise in live programming budgets from 1949 to 1952) threatened to drive many advertisers completely out of the market. Many sponsors turned to a non-network syndication strategy, cobbling together enough local station buys across the country to approximate the kind of national coverage a network usually provided. Television executives--most notably Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver at NBC--countered sponsor complaints by championing the idea of participation advertising, or the "magazine concept." Here, advertisers purchased discrete segments of shows (typically one or two minute blocks) rather than entire programs. Like magazines, which featured advertisements for a variety of products, the participation show might, depending on its length, carry commercials from up to four different sponsors. Similarly, just as a magazine's editorial practice was presumably divorced from its advertising content, the presence of multiple sponsors meant that no one advertiser could control the program.

Even as agencies relinquished responsibility for production, they still maintained some semblance of control over the content of the programs in which their clients advertised, a censorship role euphemistically referred to as "constructive influence." As one advertising executive noted, "If my client sells peanut butter and the script calls for a guy to be poisoned eating a peanut butter sandwich, you can bet we're going to switch that poison to a martini." Still, this type of input was mild compared with the actual melding of commercial and editorial content, a practice all but abandoned by the vast majority of agencies by 1953.

Despite Madison Avenue's initially hostile reaction, participation advertising ultimately became television's dominant paradigm for two reasons. One was purely cost; purchasing 30 to 60-minute blocks of prime time was prohibitively expensive to all but a few advertisers. More importantly, participations were the ideal promotional vehicle for packaged goods companies manufacturing a cornucopia of brand names. While it is true that the magazine concept opened up television to an array of low budget advertisers, and thus expanded the medium's revenue base, it was companies like Procter and Gamble that catalyzed the trend (ironic, given that Proctor and Gamble today has operational control over two soap operas, the last vestige of single sponsored shows on television). Further, back-to-back recessions in the mid-1950s provided an impetus for the producers of these recession-proof goods to scatter their spots throughout the schedule; their subsequent sales success solidified the advent of participations on the schedule. Without the economic rationale of single sponsorship, most advertisers chose to circulate their commercials through many different shows rather than rely on identification with a single program.



"Speedy" for Alka-Seltzer
Photo courtesy of Bayer Corporation

By 1960 sponsorship was no longer synonymous with control--it now merely meant the purchase of advertising time on somebody else's program. While sponsor identification remained important to such advertisers as Kraft and Revlon, most sponsors prized circulation over prestige; as a result, fewer agencies offered advertiser-licensed shows to the networks. The quiz scandals of 1958-59, often identified as the causative factor in network control of program procurement, was in actuality only a coda.

Ironically, it was the networks' assumption of programming control that resulted in a narrower and more conservative conception of program content, with a greater reliance on established genres and avoidance of technical and/or narrative experimentation. In the effort to provide shows that would offend no sponsor, network television's attempts to be all things to all advertisers drained the medium of its youthful vigor, plunging it into a premature middle age. By appealing to target audiences--at least in the early 1950s--advertisers were in many ways more responsive and innovative than the networks.

While the vestiges of single sponsorship remain in, of all places, public television--Mobil Masterpiece Theater, for example--advertisers still wield enormous, if indirect, influence on program content. For example, in 1995 Procter and Gamble, the nation's largest television advertiser, announced that it would no longer sponsor daytime talk shows whose content the company considered too salacious. Today's marketers realize they can influence programs through selective breeding, bankrolling the content they support and pulling dollars from topics they do not.

-Michael Mashon


Allen, Robert C., editor. Channels of Discourse, Reassembled. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Barnouw, Erik. The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Bellaire, Arthur. TV Advertising: A Handbook of Modern Practice. New York: Harper, 1959.

Boddy, William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Cantor, Muriel B. Prime-Time Television: Content and Control. Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1980.

Ewen, Stuart, and Elizabeth Ewen. Channels of Desire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Kepley, Vance. "The Weaver Years at NBC." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), April 1990.


See also Advertising; Advertising, Company Voice; Advertising Agency; "Golden Age" of Television; Programming; Sustaining Program